Teaching Profession Opinion

Can Teachers Lead Without Leaving the Classroom?

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 01, 2014 3 min read
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Can teachers lead and still teach?

On a recent Friday about 50 union members, mostly classroom teachers, struggled with the question of how teachers can be leaders without leaving teaching or rising through the union ranks.

Dick Gale, manager of the California Teachers Association Institute for Teaching, and his colleagues facilitated two days in which members of CTA think tanks refined their ideas about changing education.

Their ideas included bold strategies, including teacher-run schools and clearly articulating alternatives to standardized-test score accountability. They even talked about a guild model of unionism, something I’ve written about, and this discussion dovetailed nicely with inserting the union more forcefully into teacher preparation and professional development.

Some of their ideas are remarkably similar to the set of teaching practices I call Learning 2.0.

But their central insight is to discover and build on teacher and school strength rather than to begin with its deficiencies: leading with capacity building rather than punishment.

Does this somewhat out-of-the-box thinking have a future inside the historically doctrinaire CTA? Maybe.

In March, I spent two days with teams of teachers and school administrators at CalTURN, the state affiliate of the Teacher Union Reform Network. There, teams of union leaders and school administrators worked under the tutelage of the brilliant labor-management facilitator Pat Dolan to find new ways of working together to address decisions about the Common Core.

Dolan has spent a career trying to make hierarchies work like teams and make industrial unions wear the clothes of producer cooperatives. He stood by a flip chart with a crudely drawn hierarchy with the positions indicated by number: “How do you get the #1s (superintendents, boards and union presidents) to listen to the #2s (teachers and students), when the #5 (central office staff) is in the way, and where the #3s (principals) are running for cover”?

This is not easy work. It’s difficult to get unionists, who gained power by metaphorically painting devil’s horns on school administrators, to think about constructive problem solving rather than exploiting differences. And it is equally difficult to get control-freak, risk adverse administrators to depart from the standard operating procedures that allowed them to rise in the ranks.

I have been observing efforts to change unions for a long time, and its fair to say that the reform bug is not highly contagious.

But it might be catching on. California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel sat in for part of the meeting and encouraged his members. During his presidency CalTURN has moved from CTA Siberia to a somewhat warmer relationship with the state union.

The CTA has also recognized the pack of wolves at the door. It has realized that powerful forces are organizing against it and that teacher unions have become a wedge that divides the Democratic Party. Democrats for Education reform embrace an agenda not too different from that of Republican governors. Tenure, seniority, and due process provisions of law and contract are openly attacked, and the unions have largely lost the battle for idea leadership, and money leadership, too. The new breed of venture philanthropists is almost entirely anti teacher union.

Somewhat belatedly, the CTA has figured out that it actually needs substantive allies, not just legislators beholden to it because the union ponied up at election time.

In order for that to happen, the CTA and its smaller counterpart, the California Federation of Teachers, need a better idea: a compelling notion about the future of education that differs from charter schools, scripted lesson plans, and test score accountability. They need to be able to articulate this vision in ways that show that they are willing to hold themselves accountable.

I saw glimpses of idea leadership at the Institute for Teaching meeting and at CalTURN, too. Although not all these teachers favor the Common Core, it, along with Local Control Funding, opens the door for expanding teacher leadership.

Next: Organizing Around Quality

The opinions expressed in On California are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.